Shea Coulee & Scott Studenberg
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LGBTQ+ Refugees Must Tell Their Own Stories, And You Need to Listen

Refugees walking

The video of the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25 has triggered a wave of protests against police brutality and systematic racism in the United States and around the globe. Despite the threat of the ongoing global pandemic, Black communities and their allies have taken to the streets to demand justice and equality. While discussions of race and marginalization are part of everyday life for many minorities, the murder of George Floyd has galvanized an international conversation on the related issues of race, marginalization and equality. The Black Lives Matter movement is a true example of how hearing and telling the stories of the marginalized can spark change — what started as a mostly American movement, quickly became a global one over the last few months.

This current movement has encouraged historically marginalized communities to speak up. There is a need for people to speak out against acts of violence, oppression, and hate rhetoric and to have their stories heard. To embrace true justice, equality, and inclusion requires that those with privilege and power to use it – and sometimes just step out of the way – to uplift the voices of the marginalized, allowing them to speak for themselves, tell their own stories, and demand their own justice. 

For the past decade, I have dedicated my career to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer advocacy, particularly on behalf of LGBTQ+ individuals around the world who face oppression and inequality and have been silenced in some way. They all have powerful stories to tell, but most remain unheard. In order to have a balanced conversation about marginalization — we must include the voices of the voiceless; and when it comes to refugees — LGBTQ+ refugees are acutely underrepresented.

Over the last few years, the number of asylum seekers and refugees has climbed to the highest level in recorded history, borders continued to tighten, migration rhetoric has worsened, and racial inequalities have deepened. Those who are displaced owing to their sexual orientation and gender identity are consistently among the most vulnerable and marginalized individuals and their stories mostly unseen by mainstream media. This needs to change.  

Currently there are thousands of LGBTQ+ individuals waiting to seek asylum on the U.S. southern border. Most of them have been forced to flee their homes after being subjected to violence, persecution, and death threats for just trying to be who they are. They are at greater risk than ever before – particularly transgender and gender non-conforming people. Threats come not only from long-standing prejudice and discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, but today from the pandemic as well. Policies put in place by the current administration have cut off access to asylums, leaving these vulnerable communities to wait in dangerous Mexican cities in limbo. They stand to be among the worse impacted by the virus at the center of the ongoing global pandemic if contracted, as many have weakened immune systems due to HIV, less access to healthcare and are forced to live in cramped quarters, like shelters, dorms and camps, where physical isolation is impossible, and the virus can spread quickly and with damaging effects.

Now more than ever, with the still-growing pandemic and immigration proceedings halted, these are stories we should be hearing. And we should be hearing them, from perspectives that center the voices of this community. 

Through my work at ORAM, Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration, I help these communities tell those stories and amplify their own voices. ORAM is the first international organization to protect and advocate for LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees globally. Over the last couple of years ORAM has focused on supporting LGBTIQ asylum seekers where they are, especially in so-called transit countries where they are stuck in limbo. We want to amplify their voices and allow them to advocate for themselves and their community. My hope is that through storytelling the community will learn to foster their collective voice and narrate their own personal life story. We have even recently adapted our programs for the ongoing global pandemic, including a digital storytelling class. The storytelling skills learnt in this class will be invaluable for when these LGBTIQ refugees arrive in front of an immigration officer at the border and in their asylum hearing.  

Storytelling is such a powerful tool. Through the use of technology and a digital platform, we can connect communities and share information that inspires empathy and reaches a wider audience. There are countless interesting and untold stories which are waiting to be heard and need to be told. It is vital that we amplify the voices of the most marginalized in our communities so we can learn from their experiences and these stories have the power to remind people of our shared humanity.

Stories humanize people. Listening to stories can build empathy in those who haven’t gone through the same experiences and can make us feel connected and close to our community when we hear similarities or common themes from others’ experiences, and this is something that is needed now more than ever before. 

Steve Roth is the Executive Director of the Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration.

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